By Bob Coen
MARADI DISTRICT, Niger, 4 January 2013 - It’s not yet 10 a.m. The sun beats down fiercely as a group of girls walk barefoot through the bush. They stop by a clump of small trees and shrubs and begin chopping with machetes, building piles of branches.
“Every day, I go into the bush with my friends in search of firewood that we carry back home,” says 12-year-old Aisha Gonda. “When we don’t find dead wood, we have to chop branches. It’s difficult work and it hurts our hands, but we have no choice. It’s work that is reserved for women only, and we have to do it.”
After more than an hour of chopping, they have gathered several large bundles, enough wood to meet their families’ fuel needs for one day. Brows streaked with sweat, the girls load the heavy bundles onto their heads and walk back to their village.
Aisha has been up since before dawn, and household chores will fill her day until well past dusk. Sweeping the yard, preparing the family breakfast, cleaning the pots, pounding millet, fetching wood and water, and taking care of younger children are just some of her responsibilities.
Aisha’s plight is all too common in the Niger, where more than 80 per cent of the total population live in rural villages, and where all children are expected to help with family work around the house and in the fields.
One of eighteen children in her family, Aisha cannot read or write. She has never attended school. “I had dreams of becoming a teacher one day,” she says.
Sixty-nine per cent of girls in the Niger do not go to primary school, and one out of three girls is married before the age of fifteen. Most will have no say in these matters.
Changing perceptions, empowering communities
A community-based pilot programme has been launched by UNICEF, the Government of the Niger and a group of local NGOs to change the way children are perceived and treated and to empower communities to address the many challenges facing children in the Niger today.
The programme first trains selected educators from within the community. It then gathers small groups of parents and encourages them to discuss child protection problems openly, which is not customary. Afterwards, the whole village – chief and elders, children, women and men – is brought together for a special community meeting.
Everyone has a voice
Today, community educator Oumarou Chopii stands before one such meeting. “We bring all the community together because this is an issue that affects everyone,” he says. Megaphone in hand, he encourages everyone to have a voice and participate.
One by one, they do. “Children should be protected,” says a member of the parents committee. “People should not ask them to carry heavy loads or mistreat them. They should not beat children,” adds a young boy.
“There was a man who wanted to give his little sister in marriage. The chief of the village and the elders went to him and advised him not to give his sister in marriage as she was very young,” says Aisha’s father, Mahaman Gonda. “He agreed and changed his mind.”
“People should feed well their children,” says Aisha. “They should provide them with a safe and a clean place to sleep and they should dress children well.” The crowd claps enthusiastically.
Young and old, the community have had a forum to express their thoughts on serious issues usually discussed only behind closed doors.
Protecting children at the community level
According to Abdourahmane Amadou Lobit of Lutte contre l'Analphabétisme et la Pauvreté du Niger (LUCAP), one of implementing partners of the programme, “In nearly all the villages of Niger, children are not being adequately protected, which is why the government thought it would be useful to put this programme to protect the child in place, especially at the community level – to build the confidence of the community so that they know the rights of children and understand that children are the adults of tomorrow.” Over one hundred communities in five regions of the Niger will benefit from this programme during its three-year pilot phase, encouraging a shift in how they respond to and prevent such problems as child labour, exploitation, violence and abuse.
For now, at least one young member of the community has felt empowered by the programme. “I will send my children to school,” says Aisha. “Child rights are important because children will grow up well, and then they’ll be able to take their place in the community.”